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Living wage ordinance would give poor a lift

Published October 19, 2003

Willard Lee asks only this much. Don't call him reverend. Call him pastor, elder, even brother. But not reverend. That's the word he uses to describe God. And he's not God.

But Lee is doing what some people would consider God's work.

Lee, the pastor of New Smyrna Full Gospel Baptist Church in Tampa's Belmont Heights, ministers to some of the least of us, economically speaking. He is trying to relieve the conditions of the working poor.

As president of HOPE, or Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality, he leads a campaign to get the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County to pass ordinances that would require both governments, and the businesses that win government contracts, to pay their workers a living wage.

A living wage would almost double the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. It is not a radical idea. Living wage ordinances have been adopted in several other cities across the country.

Pastor Lee believes, and I agree, that adopting a living wage ordinance would mean all the difference in the lives of many people.

Lee sees it with his own eyes. Day in, day out, he comes across people working hard but spinning their wheels. They work but still qualify for food stamps or subsidized housing. They take second jobs. They leave their children unsupervised. They live in a permanent state of anxiety.

HOPE wants a living wage in Tampa of at least $9.75 an hour, plus an extra $1.50 if no health benefits are provided. That works out to $11.25 an hour, $450 a week, or $23,400 a year.

But that would be the minimum. Other research suggests a livable wage would need to be far higher for someone heading a four-person family.

The Economic Policy Institute, a liberal-minded research group in Washington, keeps track of what it takes to live in America today. Based on Census figures, EPI calculated that a four-person family in the Tampa Bay area would need an annual income of $32,398.

That's a no-frills figure, and nearly $9,000 more than HOPE's proposal.

The number hints at the profundity of the crisis for so many who spend their days trying to climb out of a hole, one not of their own making.

The question now: How will Tampa's elected officials respond to HOPE's proposal? It was put forth last week at a church meeting in East Tampa. HOPE invited the seven members of the Hillsborough County Commission and seven members of the Tampa City Council. Only one commissioner and two Council members showed up, a number that still rankles Lee.

But he has another potential and powerful ally: Mayor Pam Iorio. At week's end, she told me her staff had been researching prospects for a living wage ordinance long before HOPE stepped forward. The Chamber of Commerce is also looking at it.

The matter is not simple. The ordinance could have a serious impact on businesses that contract with the government. At issue: How do you pay people fairly without driving their bosses out of business?

Lee prepares himself for questions like that one. He contends better paid workers make their companies more stable, more efficient. He thinks better paid workers would plow money back into the local economy. He even argues that higher wages for government workers and government contractors would slowly raise wages for workers elsewhere in the bay area.

The pastor has a tendency to boom at you when he speaks, a product of all his years in the pulpit. He's going to need the volume in coming months to be heard over the other voices - from business, unions and community groups - that will take a stand on the living wage ordinance as it moves through government.

This won't be an argument just over money. We'll be talking about how far we are willing to go to improve the way many of us live.

[Last modified October 19, 2003, 02:03:50]

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